A grassroots push for higher SNAP benefits

Anti-hunger activists hope one-on-one conversations with senators on their home territory over the next couple of weeks will overcome opposition to a 15-percent increase in SNAP benefits during the coronavirus pandemic. Republican senators, backed by the White House, blocked attempts earlier this year for the temporary increase although the Democratic-controlled House has voted for it.

“The Senate must act immediately,” said Luis Guardia, head of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), on Tuesday. “Hungry people simply cannot wait.”

The food insecurity rate is nearly double its level before the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic slowdown. In the latest polling by the Covid Impact Survey, one in five households said they often or sometimes run out of food in the preceding month. Food banks face sharply higher demand for help at the same time they are seeing a drop-off in donations.

“The lines you don’t see are the people applying for SNAP,” said Michael Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. SNAP enrollment rose in March, its first increase in four months, as the impact of the pandemic began to be felt. Data are not available for April when the U.S. jobless rate zoomed to 14.7 percent, from  4.4 percent in March.

Local anti-hunger organizations will try to contact their home-state senators through the Independence Day holiday to explain the need to expand the public nutrition safety net, said Ellen Teller, FRAC’s director of governmental affairs. “There will be a lot of grassroots virtual conversations going on,” said Teller during a FRAC teleconference. “We know there is very little time between now and when the Senate adjourns in August.”

Work on a broad coronavirus relief bill was expected in the Senate in early July. Passage would clear the way for negotiations with the House over compromise legislation. The House passed its version on May 15. It included the three major provisions sought by anti-hunger groups — the increase in SNAP benefits, doubling the minimum benefit to $30 a month and blocking three regulations that would narrow access to SNAP.

“That’s the minimum that they (the Senate) should do,” said Wilson. Some 2,500 anti-hunger, medical, religious, labor, farm and consumer groups signed a letter last week in support the three requests.

Given forecast of high unemployment for months to come, Congress “is more at risk of under-responding than overdoing” its support of social programs, said Northwestern University professor Diane Schanzenbach. Lawmakers should extend the fortified set of unemployment benefits that created in response to the pandemic as well as acting on public nutrition, she said.

Every state has exercised the option, created in an earlier relief bill, to issue for two months the maximum benefit now allowed to SNAP participants and almost all of them have opted to run a so-called P-EBT program, said the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. P-EBT helps low-income families buy food for children who lost access to school meals due to closures. The center said those were the two major ways that states could increase benefits in response to rising needs for food.

Several healthcare officials said the Trump administration has considered scaling back the national emergency declared earlier this year because of the pandemic, apparently as a way of showing progress against the coronavirus, reported the Los Angeles Times. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told the newspaper that she spoke to Trump “and he said we are not looking at lifting the national emergency declarations.”